Death ---the Major Theme in Emily Dickinson's Poems

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Death ---the Major Theme in Emily Dickinson's Poems



    Death ---the Major Theme in Emily Dickinson's Poems

     !系, 化学学院



    学生姓名 刘璇


    任课教师 赖燕、刘芳




1. Introduction…………...…….................…………....3

     1.1 General Summary Emily Dickinson and her poems............3

     1.2 Emily Dickinson's attitudes toward death................................4

    2. Analyse the death poems..…………......................4

     2.1 Synthetical analyse the death poems…………....................4

     2.2 Analyse the poem"I heard a fly buzz---when I died"...............5

     2.3 Analyse the poem "Becuase I could not stop for death"..........6

    3. Conclusion.………………….................……..……...8

    4. Bibliography......………….......................……...........9


     1. Introduction

    1.1 General Summary Emily Dickinson and her poems

     Emily Dickinson, regarded as one of Americas greatest poets, is also well

    known for her unusual life of self imposed social seclusion. Living a life of simplicity and seclusion, she yet wrote poetry of great power; questioning the nature of immortality and death, with at times an almost mantric quality. Her different lifestyle created an aura; often romanticised, and frequently a source of interest and speculation. But ultimately Emily Dickinson is remembered for her unique poetry. Within short, compact phrases she expressed far-reaching ideas; amidst paradox and uncertainty her poetry has an undeniable capacity to move and provoke.

     Dickinson's poetry is unique and unconventional in its own way. Her poems have no titles, hence are always quoted by their first lines. In her poetry there is a particular stress patten, in which dashes are used as a musical device to create cadence and ocapital letters as a means of emphasis. The form of her poetry is more or less like that the hymns in community churches, familiar, communal, and sometimes, irregular. Dickinson's irregular or sometimes inverted sentence structure also confuses readers. However, her poetic idiom is noted for short, rarely more than twenty lines, and many of them are centered on single image or symbol and focused on one subject matter. Due to her deliberate seclusion, her poems tend to be very personal and meditative. She frequently uses personae to render the tone more familiar to reader, and personification to vivify some abstract ideas. Dickinson 's poetry, despite its ostensible form simplicity, is remarkable for its variety, subtlety and richness; and her limited private word has never confined the limitless power of her creativity and imagination.

     Dickinson's poem are usually based on her own experience,her sorrows and joys. But within her little lyrics Dickinson addresses those issues that concern the whole human beings ,which including religion, death, immortality, love and nature. In her love poems, one group of them treats the suffering and frustration love can cause. The other group of love poems focuses on physical aspect of desire. At the same time, her also wrote many poems about nature, in which her general skepticism about the relationship between man and nature is well-expressed. However, the most prominent theme in her poem is death.

     In her nearly one thousand eight hundred poems , a quarter of them have involved death. She wrote poetry of death and immortality ranging over the physical as well as the psychological and emotional aspects of death. She look at death from the point of view of both the living and the dying. She even imaging her own death , the loss of her owe body, and the journey of her soul to the unknown . Perhaps Dickinson's greatest rendering of the moment of the death is to be find in " I heard a Fly buzz - when I died - ", a poem universally considered one of her masterpieces. 1.2 Emily Dickinson's attitudes to death

     The question of mental cessation at death was an overtone of many of her


    poems. The imminent contingency of death, as the ultimate source of awe, wonder, and endless questions, was life's most fascinating features to Dickinson. Dickinson challenges the mysteries of death with evasion, despair, curiosity or hope in her poetry in a journey or dream and on the dividing line of life and death. One can see that Dickinson points to death as the final inevitable change. The intensity of Dickinson's curiosity about dying and her enthusiasm to learn of the dying's experience at the point of mortality is evident in her poetry. She studied the effort of the death's disappearance, on the living world; in a hope to conjecture something about the new life they are experiencing after death. From this view of point, Emily Dickinson has crossed over the death.

     Somebody say Dickinson is an interrogator of death and immortality and death made her beauty eternal. She regards death as a fearful destroyer and a ruthless corrupter at one hand, but at the other hand regards death as a shelter from miserable life, a particular procedure of sleep and threshold to immortality. Her ambiguity attitude toward death well embodied in her many poems. In the following pragraph, I will make a detail analysis to Dickinson's death poem.

     2.Analyse the death poems

    2.1 Synthetical analyse the death poem

    Many of Dickenson's poems deal explicitly with concepts of death. One group of

    them regard death as a fearful destroyer and a ruthless corrupter. In"Death is a dialogue between", death is a defeated enemy. Dickinson tries her hand at dramatic poetry with a conversation between Death and Spirit. In "Dust is the only secret", death is once again the enemy, who is time and time again thwarted by the mercy of Christ. Dickinson personifies and employs a list of adjectives to describe death.

     The other group regard death as a shelter from miserable life, a special kind of honor , which represents the bright and happy future and brings hope to humans.In "Because I could not stop for death" Dickinson personifies death as a kind stage coach driver taking its visitor, not to some ghastly abode, but toward eternity with Immortality. In "Drowning is not so pitiful" , she describe death as an eternal resting place, yet few of us are in a hurry to get there. In "So proud was she to die" Dickinson uses irony to describe the living as jealous of one who is dying. Although some may regard the dying woman in the poem as suicidal, the context indicates that the dying woman has been on the brink of death for quite some time and welcomes the end of Earthly pain.

    In some poems, She imagines her friends' and relatives' death, and even imagines her own death and the loss of her owe body. In "If anybody's friend be dead" Dickinson comments on the grief experienced by those who have lost loved ones. In "If I should die" Dickinson reverses the roles in "If I should die." She declares that if she dies, life goes on, and she is, therefore, relieved that those left behind will continue to experience life. The most famous poem " I heard a Fly buzz - when I died - " give us the just as the real experience of death. In the following paragraphs, I will take this poem and the poem " Because I could not stop for death" for examples to do


a more in-depth analysis.

    2.2 Analyse the poem"I heard a fly buzz--when I died"

     I heard a fly buzz- when I died-

     The Stillness in the room

     Was like the Stillness in the Air-

     Between the Heaves of Storm-

     The Eyes beside-had wrung them dry-

     And Breaths were gathering firm

     For that last Onset-when the King

     Be witnessed-in the Room-

     I willed my Keepsakes, Signed away

     What portion of me be

     Assignable-and then it was

     There interposed a Fly-

     With Blue, uncertain, stumbling Buzz,

     Between the light -and me-

     And then the Windows failed- and then

     I could not see to see-

     In the first stanza the narrator states, "I heard a Fly buzz- when I died-". An annoying fly is usually not of utmost importance when one is dying. Death is perceived as a serious time in life. Emily Dickinson sets the tone of the poem intending to shock the reader, which is what happens.

     The speaker describes a "Stillness in the Air-/Between the Heaves of Storm-" (3-4). Furthermore, the room quiets as the narrator and the mourners are waiting for the last breath of life to leave. The atmosphere of the room is like the calm before the storm. There are no trumpets or harps from Heaven playing, God, a higher power, or any beautiful angels to be seen. In the room there is just a quiet waiting and the pesky fly. The family of the narrator are in mourning for what is to come, "The Eyes around- had wrung them dry-" (5). The family grieves and now they are waiting, "For that last Onset-when the King/ Be witnessed-in the Room-" (7-8). In the first part of this line, the author uses an oxymoron by stating "that last Onset". Last means an "end," while the definition of onset is a "beginning." The king is a symbol of God or death. The narrator is signifying a belief in religion with the mention of the "King." The writer is affirming a belief in life after death.

     There is sadness in the narrator stating, "I willed my Keepsakes" (9). Making a will is the last and final way of ensuring the narrator's previously-owned possessions staying with loved ones after death. Most people fear death, the tone of the narrator is merely one of sad acceptance. At the moment of disclosing the narrator's will, "There interposed a Fly-," which means the fly once again is interrupting (12). The description of the fly changes in stanza thirteen as the narrator states, "With Blue-


    uncertain stumbling Buzz-," thus explaining the fly is no ordinary house fly but a metaphorical figure representing death. Writers often associate flies with death and decay. Flies also feed on rotting flesh. The blue buzz indicates a noise that is blue, which is impossible because a sound cannot be a color. However, blue is often associated with the sky, which is related to thoughts of Heaven or tranquility.

     The fly cuts the narrator's connection with life much like the Grim Reaper might, "And then the Windows failed- and then/I could not see to see-"(16). The narrator's eyes used in this life are now closed. The narrator could not see, but could still hear. Hearing is the last of the five senses to go before death. There are odd and disconnected feelings toward death throughout the entire poem, when in fact the narrator has been dead the entire time. Ironically, the buzz from the fly seems to be the only sign of life in the entire poem. The passage of death has an unsettling, disconnected tone but is not scary or painful.

     Emily Dickinson's poem "I heard a Fly buzz- when I died" is told by a narrator who uses past tense to describe the final moments of their life. The poem gives the reader an inside look into the final moments of death from someone who has already died. The fly is the central figure representing the oncoming of death. The poem is full of many metaphors and similes, such as the king mentioned in the poem who represents a belief in religion. The wording of the poem affirms Emily Dickinson's belief in life after death. The poem has a short title but is deep in meaning. Death is inevitable to all who are born, although not all deaths are disturbed by a pesky fly.

    “I heard a Fly buzz” employs all of Dickinson’s formal patterns: trimeter and tetrameter iambic lines (four stresses in the first and third lines of each stanza, three in the second and fourth, a pattern Dickinson follows at her most formal); rhythmic insertion of the long dash to interrupt the meter; and an ABCB rhyme scheme. Interestingly, all the rhymes before the final stanza are half-rhymes (Room/Storm, firm/Room, be/Fly), while only the rhyme in the final stanza is a full rhyme (me/see). Dickinson uses this technique to build tension; a sense of true completion comes only with the speaker’s death.

     2.3 Analyse the poem "Becuase I could not stop for death"

     Because I could not stop for Death -

     He kindly stopped for me -

     The Carriage held but just Ourselves -

     And Immortality.

     We slowly drove - He knew no haste

     And I had put away

     My labor, and my leisure too,

     For His Civility -

     We passed the school, where Children strove

     At recess - in the Ring -

     We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain -


     We passed the Setting Sun -

     Or rather-He passed Us -

     The Dews grew quivering and chill -

     For only Gossamer,my Gown -

     My Tippet -only Tulle -

     We paused before a house that seemed

     A Swelling of the Ground -

     The Roof was scarcely visible -

     The Cornice - in the Ground -

     Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet

     Feels shorter than the Day

     I first surmised the Horses'

     Heads Were toward Eternity -

     In the first stanza we find that death is personified, death has been given human attributes. Death is personified as a gentleman or a suitor calling on a young lady. This seems to say that the young lady has a date with death. This is shown in lines 1 and 2, "Because I could not stop for death, / He kindly stopped for me." The poet gives death the character traits of being kind, seen in line two. It even seems that the woman is somewhat flattered in the kind nature of her suitor.

     In lines 3 and 4, "The carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality." These lines give us the impression that 'Immortality' is the chaperon for this two, the lady and the gentleman. The poem written in the 19th century shows us what the norm is; that is it would be very unbecoming for a young man and lady to be alone without a chaperone.

     The second stanza, line 5 "We slowly drove, he knew no haste." Death has no concept of time, this is an earthly concern. This Drive could also symbolize that the young woman is slowly dying or perhaps even is already dead and in a coffin moving slowly at the speed of a funeral procession.

     Lines 6 and 8, "And I had put away my labor and my leisure too, / For his civility" People are too busy with their own lives to think about death. The poet however, sets aside all her on goings to go with death. She then proceeds to comment once again on death's good manners. This is the second time that she comments on his manners. This comes as a surprise, because we often consider death as grim and is almost never welcome by human beings.

     In the third stanza, lines 9 through 12, the poet speaks of the things that they passed as they drove. "We passed the school, where children strove/ at recess- in the ring." This symbolizes childhood. "We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain." This could symbolize maturation just as the ripening of the grain. "We passed the setting sun" This symbolizes old age. This stanza signifies the stages of life, the progression from childhood through death. Perhaps, it could also be that she now that she is dying she is now more aware of her surroundings more than ever before. Notice how the word


    'passed' is repeated in the stanza. It conveys the feeling of being outside time.

     Fourth stanza, the speaker suggests that they did not pass the sun but rather passed them. Lines 13, "Or rather, he passed us." Once again we find that death has no concept of time. The sun indicates our earthly concept of time; at the beginning of the day, it rises and in the evening, it sets. Line 14 through 15, "The dews drew quivering and chill/ For only Gossamer, my Gown/ My Tippet-only Tulle-." According to the dictionary, gossamer is a very light thin cloth, tulle is a thin fine netting used for veils and scarves while tippet is a covering for the shoulders. The speaker says that she is getting cold, this suggests that the speaker is dead.

     Lines 17 through 20, "We paused before a house that seemed/ a swelling of the ground-"The roof was scarcely visible-/ The Cornice-In the ground-." The 'house' symbolizes the grave. The speaker perhaps calls it a 'house' because this is where her body will be housed or will stay for eternity. The speaker describes the 'house' as a swelling of the ground, clearly giving us a picture of a fresh burial ground. We note that the speaker does not say how long that they 'paused' at this house.

    The last stanza, lines 21and 22 "Since then- 'tis centuries- and yet/ feels shorter than the Day." Exaggeration is clearly used as centuries can never be longer than a day. We sometimes feel that some moments are somewhat longer than the actual time frame that they actually occur. This is what maybe the speaker experiences in her last moment in this time related world; and to her this moment seems to last forever. It is as if she gets a revelation. The final two lines, "I first surmised the horses' Heads /Were toward Eternity-." The speaker guesses that the carriage is now heading to their final destination, towards eternity.

    "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" reveals Emily Dickinson's calm

    acceptance of death. It is surprising that she presents the experience as being no more frightening than receiving a gentleman callerin this case, her fiancé (Death

    personified). Her description of the grave as her "house" indicates how comfortable she feels about death. There, after centuries pass, so pleasant is her new life that time seems to stand still, feeling "shorter than a Day."The overall theme of the poem seems to be that death is not to be feared since it is a natural part of the endless cycle of nature. Her view of death may also reflect her personality and religious beliefs. On the one hand, as a spinster, she was somewhat reclusive and introspective, tending to dwell on loneliness and death. On the other hand, as a Christian and a Bible reader, she was optimistic about her ultimate fate and appeared to see death as a friend.

     3. Conclusion

     Death is one of the foremost themes in Dickinsons poetry. No two poems have

    exactly the same understanding of death, however. Death is sometimes gentle, sometimes menacing, sometimes simply inevitable. In "I heard a Fly buzzwhen I

    died" Dickinson investigates the physical process of dying. In "Because I could not stop for Death - " she personifies death, and presents the process of dying as simply the realization that there is eternal life. In"Behind Me dips - Eternity" death is the normal state, life is but an interruption. In "My life had stood - a Loaded Gun - " the existence of death allows for the existence of life. In "Some - Work for Immortality - "


    death is the moment where the speaker can cash their check of good behavior for their eternal rewards. All of these varied pictures of death, however, do not truly contradict each other. Death is the ultimate unknowable, and so Dickinson circles around it, painting portraits of each of its many facets, as a way to come as close to knowing it as she can.

     4. Bibliography

    张伯香 英美文学选读 外国教育与研究出版社 1999517-519

侯斌(丁亚丽 对死亡的矛盾心理—艾米莉?狄金森之死亡诗解读 宜宾学院学报


刘其刚 困惑的心灵—对比分析艾米莉?狄金森的两首死亡诗 Science &

    Technology Informatiom 2007 年第22

    Wang Xinxin The Ambiguity of death in Emily Dickinson's Poetry Journal of Inner Mongolia Normal University Sep.2006 Vol.35

    Chen Han-ning Emily Dickinson: An Interrogator of Death and Immortality <>


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